Category Archives: Mystery

Night After Night by Phil Rickman

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 528
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Night After Night by Phil RickmanReview
Knap Hall is a Tudor House with a history. Connected to nearby Winchcome and Sudeley Castle by the tragic tale of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last and surviving Queen, and striken by centuries of evil, charlatan landlords, it has no welcome for the living. It is, though, a natural home for the dead. When Hollywood actress Trinity Ansell and her husband Harry bought the house, Trinity became obsessed by it, hosting Tudor weekends for the rich, dressing in the stunning red dresses of Katherine Parr. But Trinity’s destiny soon becomes tragically tied to this house and it’s not long before it is back on the market, snapped up this time by Leo Deffard, the head of an independent TV company, who is after the perfect haunted house in which to set his paranormal, psychological TV experiment, which will, he trusts, make a killing in the TV ratings.

Leo’s plan is to put a group of celebrities into the house in what would be a mix of Big Brother and Haunted House. Their opposing views on ghosts and the supernatural will, he hopes, lead them into conflict and, ideally, something will happen that will put them all on the front pages of the newspapers.

The first half of Night After Night follows researcher Grayle Underhill’s attempts to build background to Knap Hall, looking for clues to the Katherine Parr connection as well to the lives of those who lived in the Hall during its subsequent darker years. Grayle has her own history, as do many that she meets, and it strikes the reader more than once that she is rarely more than a knife’s edge from breakdown. You could say a similar thing about her friend Cindy, the transsexual ex-minor-celebrity psychic analyst and ventriloquist who turns up in the house as a ‘resident’ in the TV show but is also a double-agent. He is there to watch the drama, feed it and bring it to a ratings-hungry head.

Written in the present tense throughout, Night After Night is a book that does its utmost to tempt the reader in, just as if the reader were a viewer of the Big Other, as the show is unfortunately named. Initially, it works quite well. I was intrigued by the sad and rather appealing character of Trinity Howell whose last dreams were bound so tightly to Knap Hall. I also enjoyed the setting in the beautiful Cotswolds. This is an area I know very well and I could picture the scenery and history as it was revealed to me. My fascination with Katherine Parr and Sudeley Castle is also strong and I was interested to see how both would be treated here.

However, as the novel went on it lost me. While pretending to be something ‘other’ from Big Brother, it actually felt rather the same to me. Also, I could not understand the appeal for TV audiences of the Big Other‘s premise. Second-rate personalities debating ghosts, being freaked out themselves by bumps in the night – why is this so different from other programmes you’d not be surprised to see on some of the channels with high numbers?

I believed that Night After Night would be a supernatural tale, a ghost story, and I spent much of the novel waiting to be frightened – and I am very easily frightened. But not once did I flinch. There is nothing to frighten here. The stories of past horrors at the house are revolting and disturbing but no more significant than that. The supernatural element of the novel merges with other more earthly themes of jealousy, superstition and violence. Deffard has purposely placed opposing personalities in a claustrophobic and oppressive situation. It’s not surprising that it erupts. That’s what he wants after all. The ghosts are almost an after thought. And that’s rather a pity.

I was very disappointed by Night After Night – it never proved to me that it was one thing or the other. Never frightening and never puzzling. I didn’t warm to any of the characters with the exception of Trinity and she is soon relegated in importance. The character of Cindy could have been intriguing but his dialogue – imagine having a conversation with Yoda – alienated me from him almost instantly. But my main problem with the novel is that I forlornly spent its entire length waiting for something to happen that would make my time investment worthwhile. Not being able to overcome my lack of interest in the banal Big Other didn’t help. The only thing that did surprise me about Night After Night is that I finished it.

Dead Men by Richard Pierce

Publisher: Duckworth
Pages: 284
Year: 2012 (15 March)
Buy: Paperback
Source: Review copy

Dead Men by Richard PierceReview
One hundred years ago, Robert Falcon Scott and four other men left the other members of the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and set out to claim the South Pole. When they arrived there on 19 January 1912, they discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Admundsen had beaten them to it by a mere matter of days. Neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans survived the arduous trek back to their comrades.

A century later in London, a young artist Birdie Bowers, named by her parents in honour of their famous and tragic relative Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, is obsessed with finding the tent in which the frozen remains of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were discovered and buried a short time after their deaths. The tent was located just eleven miles from a food depot. Birdie believes that the answer to the mystery of why Scott couldn’t reach this safety lies buried in the ice with him. His diary and those of the other men had been rescued but they didn’t provide the answers Birdie seeks, just tantalising glimpses of five men descending into their fate.

Adam Caird is the man who has fallen in love with Birdie, a woman he has taken upon himself to rescue and love and so escort to the other side of the world. Neither of them were looking for love and both find it difficult to speak its language but, as they prepare for their expedition to the South Pole, they learn as much about each other as they do about the men they are trying to find. When they finally reach Antarctica and face true isolation and real danger, they realise how impossible it would be to survive without the other.

For life, love, fear and death are the themes of Dead Men. Removed from society and civilisation, in the white out of a snow storm and with the threat of six months of frigid darkness, Scott and his men, as well as Birdie and Adam, have to face something quite primeval about their existence and place in the world.

Dead Men contains several voices. In large part, we have the present tense first person narrative of Adam, revealing to us his feelings for the younger and extraordinary Birdie as well as his increasing fascination for Scott and his men. The only distraction for me were Adam’s frequent tears. In addition to his story we have pieces from the past, told in third person, as we observe the discoverers of the remains of Scott, the other men of the Terra Nova expedition waiting for rescue from the ice, Roald Admunson, Scott’s wife and so on. This variety of perspectives, times and continents provides a rich depth for the mystery.

There is also another presence at work here and it’s the one that exerts the pull on the lives and fate of the men who explore this ice wasteland as well as those of the people left behind or follow in their footsteps.

Dead Men grips in more ways than one. It is a historical puzzle but it is also a polar adventure, a love story, a horror story and a ghostly tale. It challenges the conventions of what one can expect from a historical mystery – Dead Men is not an action thriller nor is it a conventional romance. It is, however, poetically told and I was as moved by it as, at times, I was frightened. It’s a gentle, relatively short and well-written tale focusing on characters past and present with whom we quickly become involved. We many not know much about the previous life of our narrator, Adam, or too many details about the men from the past such as Cherry but the quality of the prose means we know all we need to with a skilful brevity.

Dead Men is a debut novel by Richard Pierce and it is an excellent one. His meticulous research into the story of Scott’s last expedition shines through, as does the dangerous, cold splendour of Antarctica and the adventurous spirit of the men who strove to conquer her.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 416
Year: 2012
Buy: Hardback, Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Snow Child by Eowyn IveyReview
A middle-aged couple, Mabel and Jack, are about to endure their second Alaskan winter. Far from their families, they are trying to make a life for themselves farming land that for much of the time is either too frozen or too wet. With Jack labouring all day, Mabel is left in their cabin, remembering a lost child and contemplating whether to take a walk across the barely frozen nearby river.

Yet, when the first snow falls, Jack and Mabel are enchanted and for the first time in a long, long while they play together and build with great care a snow girl, complete with red lips, red mittens and scarf and yellow hair. The next morning, the snow child is gone and, when they begin to catch sight of a young girl in the trees, watching them, Mabel becomes convinced that the child is a snow girl, brought to life, just like the snow child fairy tale in the Russian book that she treasures, even though she can’t read a word.

The Snow Child is a wonderful novel. Wonderful. Extraordinarily, it is Eowyn Ivey’s first book, something that is quite incredible as you realise that not a word is superfluous and not a sentence detracts from the beauty of the story and its characters, not to mention the atmosphere of the harsh but magnificent Alaskan setting. As the story unfolds, there is something inspirational and very moving about Mabel’s rediscovery of herself and her husband and her new found love affair with this most beautiful and ultimately giving of environments. As for the snow child herself, there’s every chance that you’ll fall as much in love with her as Mabel and Jack.

I don’t want to talk too much about the story of The Snow Child because the novel’s mystery is entrancing. There are few characters, not surprisingly considering that it is set in such a remote part of the world in a time (the thirties) when deprivation and hardship caused many to give up their dreams and return to the cities. The people who survive in Alaska have to adapt, be able to live off the land and its animals for food and warmth, and must find comfort where they can. The ties that bind Mabel to her husband, neighbours, the girl and even her family back home, are tender and unbreakable.

Eowyn Ivey’s prose is truly bewitching and at times you may catch your breath, smile or cry a little. She has achieved the sophisticated air of simplicity and naturalness while going straight to the heart of her fully-rounded, breathing characters, yet still always making sure that the Alaskan environment is never more than a cabin wall from us, even when we read this novel wrapped up and snug in our homes. It is a marvellous achievement and Eowyn Ivey has a great talent which we must watch in the years to come. The fact that Eowyn lives in Alaska and clearly knows and understands it brilliantly well is apparent in every page.

I’ve read many novels this year but The Snow Child ranks high among them and I don’t think I’m going to forget it. The book isn’t out until February 2012 so I’ll make sure I remind you of it again nearer the time.

Huge thanks to my good friend Liz for the read.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 480
Year: 2011, Paperback 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

As soon as I finished Elizabeth Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett I turned to its sequel The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, grateful that I didn’t have to leave behind the character of Laurence Bertram just yet. If anything, this second novel was even more satisfying and absorbing than the first, building on our knowledge of previously known characters while introducing equally complicated and interesting people.

Set in the years following World War I, Laurence Bertram is called to the village of Eastern Deadall where his friends William and Eleanor Bolitho are helping to construct a memorial to the village’s war dead – a window in the church and a maze in the garden of the estate owned by the Easton family. As the Easton church is prepared for its new window, architectural mysteries are revealed, such as the floor hastily covered with tar and the suspicion of a forgotten vault. As a man who writes about churches, Laurence is perfectly suited to investigate the history of this building.

But that’s not the only mystery. Before the war, the lord of the manor Digby Easton and his fragile wife Lydia lost their only child, Kitty. One day she simply vanished. The manic search of the family and everyone in the village for this lost child fills the novel as do the secrets of this damaged family. When the family with Laurence visits the Great Empire Exhibition in London one day, another terrible happening triggers off a sequence of events that strangely help to explain what might have happened.

The theme of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is the maze. The maze planned for the garden oddly mirrors the hidden design of the church floor and, as it turns out, the labyrinth beneath that floor.

As with the previous novel, the strength of this one lies in the characterisation. The Easton family, the Bolithos, Kitty and her sister Frances and Laurence, plus the characters he encounters as he chases the footprints of Kitty. But, as before, the war is never far away and, as the search for truth takes Bertram into the labyrinth, his claustrophobia and terror are vividly brought home to us.

Elizabeth Speller’s writing appears effortless and is beautiful. This is book two. May there be many more.

The Return of John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 448
Year: 2010
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The First World War has recently ended, bringing back to their homes and families the damaged young men that have survived. Among them is John Emmett but, within a short time, he is found dead. A suicide who left no note. His sister Mary calls on Laurence Bertram, a schoolfriend of her brother and one of the few that he kept in touch with, to find out why John died despite the fact that he appeared to be in recovery from his wartime experiences.

Laurence Bertram is in need of a distraction. Awarded for valour for actions committed in the trenches at the moment – he later learns – that his young wife died in childbirth, the baby lost too, he’s come home to write a book on London’s medieval churches. But Mary’s plea for help gives him the chance to engage with not only her, a woman we sense he always would have loved, but also other people who come to give his life meaning, especially the enigmatic William and Eleanor Bolitho.

The story soon becomes an engrossing investigation of the truth behind a firing squad and its victim, of war poets forced to bear guns. Amongst the heroes are other soldiers, those who used the cover of war to mask their actions, even rape and murder. As the war ends, there are others intent on vengeance.

The Return of John Emmett succeeds on so many levels it is a most rewarding novel to read. John Emmett’s name is in the title but, just as in the novel that follows (The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton), this is the story of a survivor, Laurence Bertram. Incidents from his own war are sporadically told, as if we witness in real time Bertram trying to come to terms with his past. Laurence is such a likeable character it is a pleasure to follow his recovery and rediscovery of love in his life.

The strength of this novel lies not only in the clarity and the beauty of the writing but in the rich characterisation of his characters, however brief their appearance on the page. As we follow Laurence in his investigation of the path that took Emmett to his final moments at Faringdon’s Folly, we are made fully aware of how devastating the first world war was and how this continued as the villages across the country erected monuments to their dead.

Straight after finishing this novel I read its sequel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. It was just as good. If there had been a third, I would have kept on reading. Elizabeth Speller is a writer to watch and read for years to come.

Review of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.

House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

Publisher: Harper
Pages: 400
Year: 2011
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

House of the Hanged by Mark Mills caught me by surprise. On the surface, this is a gentle novel, imbued with the heat and colour of a riviere summer. But, this is the mid 1930s and almost everyone the novel evokes, whether sunbathing by the waves or mingling with a cocktail after supper, is in exile. Their host, Tom Nash, is also in danger. As a second world war approaches, his past has caught up with him and everything is about to fall apart about him. But whom among his friends has caused this house of cards to collapse?

Tom Nash’s fate lies at the heart of House of the Hanged, named after a previous owner and portentous for the possible fate of the present. For want of a better word, Nash had been a British spy in Russia during the Revolution. His love Irina fell victim to the times and, never forgetting this loss, Nash served as an agent, working for his close friend Leonard before escaping from this world to live as a writer on the French Riviera. There he is entertained by a community of British, American, Russian and German refugees, including Leonard, his wife and his stepdaughter, Lucy, Tom’s goddaughter, and, quite possibly, the love of Tom’s life.

When an attempt is made on Tom’s life in the middle of the night, Tom and Leonard attempt to untangle the complicated lives of the community in order to uncover the identity of the person who has betrayed Tom. No-one is safe from suspicion, including Lucy and including Leonard. Meanwhile, the local police chief looks on. One thing is certain, there will be another attempt on Tom’s life.

House of the Hanged is a page turner. On the surface all is calm and gentle, as is the life of Tom and his friends. A game of tennis is as tense as life gets while every day is a succession of sundrenched beaches, dinners and cocktails. Behind the scenes, however, Tom Nash recalls his past life in Russia, the acts he committed there, his attempts to escape that time, all surrounded by the fear of increasing fascism in Germany and Italy. His all-consuming love, after the loss of Irina, is for Lucy, but even she has secrets that he has yet to uncover.

Mark Mills writes beautifully. Since reading House of the Hanged, I read Savage Garden, which tells the tale of a young British scholar who is sent by his university supervisor, soon after the end of World War 2, to a castle in Italy to uncover the history of the building. There, he learns about some of the crimes that took place at the castle during its occupation by Germans. Good as this book is, and it is good, House of the Hanged is better.

The compelling air of menace comes from the depth of the characterisation and from the vivid realisation of a world as fragile as glass and about to shatter. We meet a variety of characters through the novel, each introduced almost incidentally but clues are dropped that help Tom to learn their significance. The menace that faces Tom becomes increasingly frightening, for him and us -chairs wedged under doors to keep them locked, no sleeping at night, guns and bullets kept to hand – as well as the realisation that this false but beautiful world that has developed around him must collapse. This is the end of Lucy’s childhood.